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Be more unicorn

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You can’t avoid the unicorns, if you go into any gift shop these days. They’re everywhere – key-rings, handbags, fairy-lights; you can even buy sequinned t-shirts that say ‘be more unicorn’ on the front. It’s funny how much appeal this mythical beast has.

In Scotland, where it’s the national animal, Stirling Castle has gone unicorn-mad. In the Queen’s Inner Hall, you’ll find seven hand-woven unicorn tapestries hanging on the walls. They’re based on the famous Hunt of the Unicorn series from the 1500s, which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Re-creating them in Stirling was quite a project, costing £2million and taking 13 years. The panels show a unicorn being hunted, tamed by a virgin, killed, then appearing alive again in captivity. This narrative is assumed to be an allegorical interpretation of the life of Christ, although no-one really knows what’s going on in this story. Read More

How to design in character education

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Extreme Performance

Among adults, one of the most common phobias is public speaking. Well, it seems that Gordonstoun could teach us a thing or two about how to fix that. When our Head of Music first heard the results of research into the value of our out-of-classroom offer, he responded by mounting weekly recitals. Struck by the compelling pedagogy of challenge, he realised that the students needed more than just the once-termly terror of a public concert if they were really to embed public performance skills. And what could be more terrifying that standing in the loneliness of a concert hall surrounded by your peers, waiting to play?

Transferable learnings

When we launched the Edinburgh University research into the non-classroom curriculum at Gordonstoun, it was greeted with predictable wails about public school privilege. “It’s easy for them – they’ve got a YACHT!” But this is to misunderstand why we did it. We did it because being a charity is about more than sharing facilities or providing bursaries. It is about being generous about anything we’ve been lucky enough to learn. Gordonstoun has already shared Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award with the world. As one of the founders of character education – now very much in vogue – we wanted to assist the public debate about it by providing real data. We’re one of the only schools that can do that, because we have 80 years’ worth of alumni to ask, all of whom were immersed in a carefully designed character-based curriculum, long before it became trendy. And character education cannot be tested at the time of acquisition, because the very point of it if its durability, and the fact that a good one will keep delivering for you throughout your lifetime. So this multi-method longitudinal study is very important. We even asked parents, because they can often see the changes in their children more readily than they can, particularly when they are pre-career.

So let me summarise the essence of our findings, and why they are so transferable, not only through school populations, but for everyone involved in youth work, training and development.

(1) Learning to try

Our research showed that a varied and repeated out-of-classroom curriculum that is compulsory for all students compels them to try things they would otherwise avoid. Our findings showed us that this ‘have a go’ mentality lasts well beyond the Gordonstoun years, and has inspired many to keep trying new things for the rest of their lives. Schools who wish to emulate this need only make more of their non-academic curriculum compulsory, so that young people gain a broader exposure to experience, and learn not be be afraid of trying something new.

(2) Learning to fail

Having to try everything means that failure is inevitable, given that it is unlikely that everyone will be good at everything. Students learn to fail, and they learn how others fail too. They learn that they may need other people to succeed, but also that they may be better than others at unexpected things. Again, schools wishing to help students learn to fail well need only identify no-examined elements of the curriculum where there is an opportunity for experimentation, and create a safe environment where failure is not considered socially terminal. This could be normalised by delaying specialisation and by making elements of sporting or drama activities compulsory for all.

(3) Learning to try again

Because the curriculum is regular and repeated, students have to have to have another go, even if they failed last time. So they learn resilience, and about conquering their fears, both about their own abilities, and about how their peers will react to them. Again, this teaches students how to pick themselves up, and many alumni told us that this ability to bounce back had been crucial in helping them to navigate subsequent career setbacks. Anyone working with young people who wants to help them learn this important life skill would need to design in opportunities for students to identify their fears and set about conquering them, whether it is public speaking, a fear of heights or water, or just plain social shyness.

(4) Social levelling

We found that in the melting pot that is Gordonstoun, the out-of-classroom curriculum is a fantastic leveller. No-one cares who your parents are on exped if you forgot to pack the hot chocolate. And because students often found themselves being led or rescued by peers they would never have expected to thrive in these contexts, it engenders a humility and respect for other people based on ability and character, and not on culture or background. Any school delivers these lessons by exposing the same groups of students to a range of contexts, where different people will have a change to shine each time.

(5) Gender

For the women in our sample, being pitted against men in so many different scenarios instils a particularly steady career confidence. Working together both in and out of the classroom, they were bound to have seen men be worse as well as better than them in such a wide variety of contexts, that their expectations in the workplace are very different, which has helped our female alumni to thrive. Again, any opportunity for mixed-gender groups to face challenges together can help with this, if the range of opportunities offered is sufficent to generate multiple data points.

Character breeds confidence

I taught leadership for over a decade at Ashridge Business School, where I had the opportunity to meet thousands of senior leaders, and to learn about their challenges. What they told me was that they wanted to be more confident. What the Gordonstoun research shows is that confidence is a natural by-product of the experience of facing your fears, time after time, and surviving them. This robs them of their power to stop you in your tracks, because you know you have developed the power to prevail. If all schools and those who provide youth activities took these findings to heart, and adapted them to use in their own contexts, we wouldn’t have business leaders who are too scared to do the right thing. We’d have brave leaders of character, which is what the world so desperately needs today.

A version of this post appeared in Insider on 20 July 2018.

For the sake of honour

By | Business, Theology | One Comment

Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

30 days hath September…

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30 days hath September,

April, June and November,

All the rest have 31,

Excepting February alone.

Which has but 28 days clear

And 29 in each leap year.

I was at school with a leap year baby. She had to make her own birthday badges with the quarters written in each year. When we hit 18, we used to tell the barman not to serve her, because she was only 5 and a half.

And time is a funny thing. It’s all relative, says Einstein. It certainly is if you live on Mercury, where a bad day at the office would actually last 2 earth years. Even here, noon differs. Today in Inverness high noon is due at 1306 hrs, a full 16 minutes after high noon in London. So when Big Ben does chime, he’s actually fast. That’s one of the reasons we need the radio, to keep us all in time. Every train station used to use its own local time, so you can imagine the chaos before they introduced Railway Time in 1840, base-lined on Greenwich.

We like to imagine time is a constant, because we like to imagine we can manage time. But of course we can’t, we can only ever manage ourselves. The clock will tick on, whether we ‘waste’ time or ‘spend’ it wisely. The average person will use up 25 years of their life sleeping, which has already wiped out quite a lot of your allotted span.

What will you do with the rest of it? Graveyards are full of messages from the dead to the living about that: Tempus Fugit – time flies – or Carpe Diem – seize the day. It’s so easy to feel in a rush. If only I had more time! I’m so busy! But when I relax a little about time, and notice its quixotic personality, I can enjoy the time passing a little more. That’s another poem I learned at school: What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?

And perhaps none of us really need to be in quite such a hurry. After all, oak trees in the forest don’t usually produce acorns until they are 50 years old. We may yet still have all the time in the world…

Managing Risk: by Spreadsheet or Emotion?

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Ethics is often seen to be a luxury, or a nice-to-have; if deployed suitably publicly, it might enhance an organisation’s licence to operate, or give their brand a virtuous glow. The business case for ethics is, however, less cynical and more strategic: it’s not so much about brand personality than it is about risk.

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Is it worth being a nasty boss?

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This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.

And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable. Read More

Diogenes Small, RIP

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I discovered how easy it is to get a book dedicated to you when I was about 13. All you have to do is ​gather your sisters, and gang up on ​his best mate at ​your grandfather’s funeral. And hey presto, The Secret of Annex 3, by Colin Dexter, for Elizabeth, Anna and Eve. Read More